Humans of New York: Lessons for the World

In the last few weeks of summer vacation, I spent hours digging through the website “Humans of New York.” Also known as HONY, this world-famous photoblog was launched by a man named Brandon Stanton who began his project in 2010 with an organic passion for photography and a vision that he could document the life of nearly every single person in New York City. His plan was simple: he would walk the streets, camera in hand, and shoot portraits of complete strangers, wherever he chose.


Today, with shots of over 10,000 people—not just from New York, but from countries across the world—Stanton’s work has become an impressive scrapbook of stories: honest and realistic snapshots of strangers’ lives. Stanton doesn’t photograph people that are famous, but this is what makes HONY so unique. The point of his blog isn’t to give you photos of celebrities or popular events, but to provide authentic and powerful insight into the lives of genuine people.


In Stanton’s 2012 TED Talk, he explains his reasons for creating the blog. He describes his earlier days of being a photojournalist, in which he would take photos at crowded events, full of professional photographers and many media-company representatives. He was quick to notice a pattern in their behavior. Rather than being dispersed equally throughout the scene, photographers would be “fighting for the exact same photographs,” or in other words, surrounding only those in the crowd that stood out.


If you’ve seen a picture of a grief-stricken woman standing in beautiful solitude at the 9-11 memorial, or a picture of a man dressed in a creepy Paul Krugman costume at the “Occupy Wall Street” protests, Stanton can assure you that the moments depicted in these photos were in fact a circus of photographers. While the woman was likely paying her respects to 9-11 victims, and the man was boldly protesting a cause he cared about, white flashes were going off in their faces, and photographers were pushing and squeezing past each other to capture these subjects from the best angle. Journalists and photographers try their hardest to tell us only the stories that we would find most interesting; in Stanton’s words, “that’s just good business.”


Stanton explains that, because our media revolves so frequently around the “interesting” stories, we are often left with warped reflections of reality. Gruesome and shocking stories of crime, violence, and danger make headlines nearly every day. When we are flooded with images of the most extreme elements of our society, we begin to perceive our world as a much more dangerous, dark, and hopeless place than it actually is.


When we turn on the news, we hear about gang violence, robberies, and murders, but not about the local grandmother that takes dance classes and works at a soup kitchen, or about the homosexual teenager that feels like they can never fit in. While mainstream news sources don’t feel the need to cover such seemingly simplistic and personal stories, HONY compensates for exactly that—one post at a time.


I believe that this is what has brought HONY to worldwide fame: its ability to invoke the deeply human emotion of empathy. It’s undoubtedly important to know about a country on the verge of nuclear war, or about the brutality that Syrian children face daily. But I’ve happily been scrolling through thousands of HONY’s portraits for the exact same reason that feel-good websites such as “22 Words” and “Huffpost Good News” are trending everywhere: without even noticing it, I’ve become tired of all the sensationalism and disharmony that I see in the media.


Think back to one of HONY’s portraits from April, with a caption about a Colombian boy who wants to be an archaeologist and hunt for “dinosaur eggs and Egyptians.” Think back to a portrait caption from 2013, in which a woman is told by her dying husband, “take the love you have for me and spread it around.” Think of the portrait about a boy who seized the perfect moment during a movie to ask his crush out on a date. Whether these stories are heart-warming or poignant, they aren’t covered by the news. They should be.


In the midst of political and international strife, it’s more important now than ever that we begin to understand and accept the stories of those all around the world. Stanton’s work is, for us, a raw and effortless way to find meaning and relatability in other people’s lives. It’s time we make more human connection. Whether it be through HONY’s long captions, the images themselves, or the thousands of Facebook comments that follow each post, there is always a message that can be extracted, or some sort of connection we can make. Through words and pictures about others, we’re getting to know these people, we’re feeling emotions that they’ve felt, and we’re learning from their lives—how things they’ve done or gone through can be lessons and shared experiences for us.


HONY isn’t just an outlet for entertainment or a pastime; I, for one, hope that it ends up being the future of journalism. The news nowadays tells us about one domestic and foreign disaster after the next, but I hope that more news sources begin to tell us the truly “good” stories: stories from which we can understand that our world is not doomed to hell, and that if we have conflicts that we need to resolve, we must do so by making human connections and coming together—not by viewing the rest of our world through a lens of separation.